Suffolk News-Herald, March 2006
The Immortal 600 (Part 3)
By Fred D. Taylor
In the last column, Captain Robert S. Elam had been transferred to Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor as a prisoner of war. This was only a temporary holding facility though, and Robert was moved again in June of 1864 to Fort Delaware, located on Pea Patch Island in the Delaware River. Fort Delaware had been converted into a prison in 1862, and held a capacity of approximately 10,000 prisoners. But, for the prisoners who were sent there, Fort Delaware was no vacation spot. Fort Delaware was notorious for its inhumane conditions, which included severe prison overcrowding, and a poor sewage system that contaminated the drinking water. For Robert, this situation was only compounded by the fact he was highly susceptible to infections due to his amputation.
Robert was imprisoned in Fort Delaware for approximately a month when a rumor began to circulate around the prison that a large group of prisoners were to be sent south to be exchanged. This was a surprise for the prisoners, as the United States had ended its policy of exchange in hopes of depleting Southern resources from both the loss of men and the necessity to care for Union prisoners of war. However, a rumor of exchange was one thing – heading South was something totally different. Needless to say, it was quite a shock then, on August 20th of 1864, when six-hundred Confederate officers left Fort Delaware on board the ship the Crescent City destined for Charleston Harbor. With the hope that they would soon be in friendly territory, these six hundred men could never have realized their actual role was as bargaining chips of the Federal government.
During the summer of 1864, several key events had set in to motion what would develop in Charleston with the arrival of these six hundred Confederate prisoners. Just months before, six hundred Union prisoners had been transferred from the Andersonville prison to Charleston. The Confederate authorities did this for several reasons. First, overcrowding within the prison had deteriorated prison conditions, placing overall health of the prisoners in serious jeopardy. Second, the start of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s campaign against Atlanta threatened the viability of a Confederate prison within striking distance. With this in mind, Confederate authorities shifted the Union prisoners out of Andersonville for fear they would be freed by Sherman.
At first, Union authorities balked at this as a violation of the ethics of war, because it was common for Union artillery to shell Charleston, and thus their men would be subjected to such fire. (Note that nothing was said of the shelling of civilian women and children there in Charleston.) However, once it was clear that the Union prisoners were not in harms way, a plan to justify doing the same to Confederate prisoners sparked the interest of Union Major General John C. Foster, commanding the Union forces around Charleston. Selling this argument to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton in Washington was easy for General Foster, who justified placing Confederate prisoners under fire as “retaliation.” The difference with these prisoners, though, was that they really would be placed under fire.
Thus, the dream of six hundred Confederate prisoners who assumed their trip south was for exchange, quickly vanished. The Crescent City arrived in Charleston Harbor on September 1st, and was immediately anchored within range and under fire of the Confederate heavy artillery at Battery Gregg, while a stockade for them was built within Union lines on Morris Island, south of Charleston. Upon their arrival, it was realized that at least forty of the prisoners were in such poor condition that even the Union officials could not justify keeping them in the name of retaliation. Among this number was Captain Robert Elam, whose condition had worsened since his arrival at Fort Delaware.
Robert was removed to the US General Hospital in Beaufort, South Carolina, where he remained until December. On December 15th, after nearly a year and half as a prisoner of war, he was paroled and released to the Confederate authorities in Charleston. As for Robert’s comrades who had been brought down from Fort Delaware, they were placed under fire for over forty-five days on Morris Island. Amazingly, none were killed in the exchange of fire, though many died from sheer dehydration, fatigue, and malnourishment. In subsequent years, these original six hundred men became poetically known as The Immortal 600.
As for Robert, it is not clear whether he remained in Charleston until its surrender in February of 1865, or gradually made his way back home after his parole. Due to his condition, what little walking he could do was limited to the use of a crutch, so realistically the only way he could travel such a long distance would have been by wagon and/or train. Given the state of the war by 1865, it is more than likely he remained in Charleston until transportation could be more easily accessible to make the nearly four hundred mile trip back home to Charlotte County, Virginia.
In the next and final column on the life of Robert Samuel Elam, we will cover his post war history, including the start of his family, and his life in Suffolk.